24 August 2006 – Prague
Two and two is four. Apples fall when you drop them. The Battle of Hastings was in 1066. And there are nine planets.
Facts all. On 23 August 2006. Then Neil deGrasse Tyson and his cronies ruined it.
The reaction to Pluto being downgraded from planet to mere dwarf planet got a lot of people angry. Really angry. But, why does it even matter? Whether Pluto is a planet or not doesn’t have a material impact upon our daily lives. It’s still there, orbiting the Sun like it always did. We just don’t think of it as one of the eight planets.
There’s something important about a “fact”. We’re living in a world where there are fewer and fewer of these “facts” that we can hang onto. For an Englishman a couple of hundred years ago it was a fact that there was a God. Now, even the “fact” that men and women should have their own bathrooms is becoming less solid.
This isn’t going to descend into the overly simplistic speech from Men In Black. But there is something quite interesting about how facts are socially constructed.
We teach undergraduates pretty early on that there’s no such thing as a fact in history. Sure, we can roughly agree that something called the Second World War ran from 1939 to 1945. But it depends on your definitions. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia could mark the start. Or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Or, even, the declaration of war by the United States. And when did it end? When Germany surrendered? When Japan surrendered? Or did the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe up until the early 1990s count as part of the war?
We’re worthless humanities scholars though. We revel in telling scientists that they’re making it all up. Sort of. The kid at the back of the class thinking they’re cool by scoffing at the teacher.
Yet, the sciences are supposed to deal with facts. Little nuggets of information that are universally true. We spend hours in chemistry classes heating copper sulphate to turn it white – then putting water on it to turn it blue again. This means water is blue, or something.1
We find pretty quickly as we go on, however, that even the scientific world is a little more complicated than it appears in high school classes. Aeroplanes fly by making the air go faster over the top of the wing, reducing the air pressure and sucking it up. (Except that’s not quite true.) The Earth’s gravity pulls things down at 10m/s2. (It doesn’t.)2
The public does hold on to certain social “facts” that keep us going. A kind of “common sense” (or senso commune as Gramsci called it, but he was Italian). Pluto being a planet was one of those things. And so, there was a lot of public anger when this fact was taken away. There didn’t seem much appetite, for example, to upgrade Ceres from asteroid to planet; or to include Makemake and Eris as new planets. Pluto appeared to warrant a place among the planets simply because it was discovered before we realised things were messier in the Solar System than we now believe them to be.
The enduring popularity of shows like QI demonstrates, however, that we sometimes like our facts to be challenged. Partly this gives us an illusion of some sort of inside knowledge that “most” people can’t access. Partly it allows us to explore beyond what we (think we) know. But the big ones don’t tend to go without a fight.
I’ll end with wild speculation. We find truth in the stars. We have done for as long as we have recorded history. The stars were our calendar. Our compass. We on Earth were the centre of that cosmos. Over the years, bloody battles have been fought over the predictions of various forms of astrology; over whether we truly are the centre of the solar system; and later what our place is within a vast, vast universe. Pluto, then, was more than a rock spinning around the Sun. It was the latest in a long line of truths in the heavens that was being taken away.
Either that, or some people REALLY need to get out more. Dude. It’s a rock. Suck it up.